The Kremlin leader, speaking in the wake of the Beslan hostage crisis, told top officials on Monday that he wanted a new election law to limit the number of political parties and to have full control over nominating regional leaders. 

Putin said the changes were vital to shore up state authority after the Beslan tragedy, in which children made up half of the hostages killed when Chechen rebels raided their school in the southern region of North Ossetia. 

"The fight against terrorism should become a national task," he told the joint meeting of government and governors from Russia's 89 regions. 

Concentration of power

Critics said the changes were further proof that the former KGB spy, who has muzzled major independent media and turned parliament and government into rubber stamps of Kremlin policy, was rolling back democracy in post-Soviet Russia.

"The last links in the system of checks and balances ... are being abolished"

Yabloko,
Russian opposition party

"The last link in the system of checks and balances, which have prevented an excessive concentration of power in one pair of hands, are being abolished," the opposition party Yabloko said in a statement. 

Putin, 51, who was re-elected to the Kremlin by a landslide in March, said urgent reform of the system was required in the face of the threat from "terrorism".

He said the State Duma, parliament's lower house, should now be elected solely on a party list basis.

New system

After a massive Kremlin-backed campaign against communists and liberal parties, the pro-Kremlin United Russia secured more than two-thirds of seats in the Duma in the last election.

Half the Duma's 450 deputies are elected on party lists, and the main parties also take many of the single-mandate local constituencies that account for the other seats - although almost 100 of these provided independent deputies or deputies from parties that did not gain seats in the list vote.

Critics say the measures will not
stop another Beslan

"In the interests of strengthening the national political system I deem it necessary to introduce a proportional system of elections to the State Duma," Putin said. "I will soon initiate an appropriate bill in the Duma."

The Russian leader also said the Kremlin should have a decisive say over the nomination of regional governors.

"Top officials in the members of the federation should be elected by local legislative assemblies by nomination of the
head of state," he said.

Kremlin domination

Putin's opponents said such electoral changes would lock in place the Kremlin's domination of the legislative branch but do
nothing to counter a wave of attacks in Russia.

"Putin has proposed renting out parliament to puppet Moscow-based parties," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal parliamentarian and one of the few independent deputies in the Duma. "In fact this will only strengthen his personal powers."

"The will of a single person is imposed on the whole of society," echoed Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov. "What he is looking for is the usurping of power."

Independent-minded governors were a major force under the Russian leader's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, but Putin clipped their wings
by ousting them from the Federation Council upper house and
replacing them with nominated proxies.

"The president's proposal will contribute to consolidation of power," pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov told Ekho Moskvy radio.

"But at the same time it means an end to direct gubernatorial elections, which will lead to a diminishing of the role of local authorities and to a general decline of pluralism in the country."